Information watchdogs have warned Wirral Council it needs to step up its commitment to openness and transparency.

The council’s chief executive will be obliged to sign an official undertaking formalising that the authority is committed to its legal obligations under Freedom of Information law.

The town hall will also be under close scrutiny for the next three months and will have to give regular updates on its FoI performance – as well as providing adequate staff and resources to make sure it is up to speed.

The moves follow a warning shot fired by the Information Commissioner’s Office last December telling the council it would be monitoring its response times to Freedom of Information requests.

The monitoring took place between January and March of this year, Wirral being one of only four public bodies subjected to the ICO's scrutiny.

A report published this morning on the watchdog’s website reveals that while there had been some improvement, fewer than 75% of requests received a response within the correct time.

UK Information Commissioner Christopher Graham writes he is concerned Wirral “has not taken adequate steps to ensure it complies with its responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act.”

However, further action - such as a fine - at this stage would be “disproportionate”.

Instead, chief executive Graham Burgess on behalf of the authority will have to sign a public undertaking that the organisation will comply with the Freedom of Information Act and ensure requests for data made under it by members of the public are answered within the legal time limit.

He will have to pledge that by the end of a further three-month monitoring process, at least 85% of requests are handled within the statutory period of 20 working days.

The chief must also take steps to “ensure appropriate resources are allocated to request handling” and that the processes are regularly reviewed.

And finally, he must ensure all council employees who deal with correspondence or who may be asked to provide information are trained to be familiar with requirements of the FoI Act.

The commissioner believes these steps "will provide assurance Wirral Borough Council has embraced the culture of openness and transparency the legislation seeks to promote."

The ICO rebuke will be especially concerning for councillors, who have been striving to build a culture of openness since the damaging Anna Klonowski inquiry report was published two years ago.

The consultant's probe found Wirral was "in the grip of a culture more concerned with its own internal machinations than the rights and needs of its citizens."

A recent peer review by the Local Government Association found Wirral had made "remarkable progress" towards turning around its corporate governance.

Conservative group leader Cllr Jeff Green said: "The commissioner's ruling is an absolutely shaming development for this authority.

"It signals the administration desperately needs to change its whole approach to openness and transparency.

"It is imperative that the speed of these FoI responses improves, along with the accuracy of the information within them.

"For too long this council has been more concerned with its reputation management than it has with allowing people to get to the truth."

Liberal Democrat councillor Stuart Kelly said: “Wirral’s record on openness and transparency is abysmal.

"Failing to meet our legal duties under the Freedom of Information Act is a disgrace and I believe the chief executive should begin to take a personal interest in improving this council's poor record”

Joe Blott, Wirral Council's strategic director for transformation and resources, said: “We take our responsibility to make information available seriously and are working hard to improve our response rates.

“An increased focus on FoI has resulted in significant progress being made in addressing outstanding FoI enquiries as well as improvements in how the council deals with new requests.

“We are starting to see the positive outcomes of our intense activity in this area.

"Our latest figures show the council met the ICO’s target, with 86% of requests responded to within 20 working days.

“The council is committed to improving public access to information and will put appropriate resources into our FoI response to ensure we continue to build on our improvements in this area.”

To read the ICO report yourself, click here

  • The Freedom of Information Act was introduced by the Labour Government in 2000 and created a "right of access" to information held by public authorities.
  • The Information Commissioner’s Office is the UK’s independent authority set up to uphold information rights in the public interest and "promote openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals."
  • It can conduct audits to check organisations are complying with the law and has the power, in extreme cases, to force them to pay up to £500,000 for serious breaches and to prosecute those who commit criminal offences.